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Putting on Your Own Exhibition?
November 7, 2017
(Originally posted in 2010)
A wise gallery owner once told me, in his finest Belfast accent – an art fair is about selling paintings, a solo exhibition is about “selling the man!” (or the woman obviously).
A solo exhibition allows you to present what you do in it’s fullest context. It’s your chance for your work to make a clear, cohesive statement, and for you to make a clear statement about your work. It is the single most important event in any working artist’s calendar.
Finding an established gallery that will offer you a solo show can be one of the biggest challenges an artist faces, however if you are willing to put on the show yourself then there are plenty of other options available – from putting it on in your own front room to hiring a gallery and everything in between. Hotels, restaurants, public buildings – anywhere that can accommodate a viewing audience - can become a gallery space for a few days.
But getting a space to show your work is only the start. The reality is that if you plan to set up your own exhibition then you must be prepared to bring your own audience. The old chestnut – “if you build it they will come” – does not work in the Art world. You have to market it effectively to ensure people know about it. And when I say “people”, I don’t mean just your extended family and friends!
Most people come to an exhibition because they have had some connection with the artist’s work in the past, or they have been recommended to come by someone else or they have seen an image in a magazine or newspaper that has caught their eye. You cannot set up a show and depend solely on people passing by the gallery window (if there is a window) to call in and buy your work, it just doesn’t work that way.
Staging your own exhibition is not something to be taken on lightly and you learn very quickly from what is involved just what a good gallery can provide for an artist, in terms of marketing, promotion and sales support.
Finally, before making any decision, you should ask yourself if you are really ready for a solo show. Is your work good enough? Has it reached the point where it’s ready for public appraisal and critique? Can you put a cohesive body of work together?
Ok, so you’ve made your decision to put on your own exhibition. Now what?
Step 1: Set your objectives and expectations
There are many reasons for staging a solo show, be clear in your own mind what you are hoping to achieve from it. Be realistic about what you expect to gain from it. Here are some questions to ask yourself…
a. What’s the aim of the exhibition?
b. How many paintings/pieces do you need to sell to break even?
c. How many do you need to sell to be a success?
d. What else do you want to achieve?
i. Generate publicity?
ii. Get reviewed in the press?
iii. Attract attention from arts network professionals?
iv. Get new commissions
v. Get into a major collection?
vi. Attract gallery interest?
vii. Get 20 new contacts added to your Client Mailing List
Remember, a successful show is not necessarily one where you sell a lot of work, achieving your other objectives should be just as important.
Step 2: Research your “Gallery” Space
I am going to simplify things here and suggest that there are two types of space available to you. A rented, purpose built gallery space…..and everything else. (For the purpose of this article I will concentrate on the rented gallery spaces).
Many commercial galleries offer their exhibition space or another of their rooms for hire, as a way of generating extra revenue. Others are set up with the sole intention of renting them out to artists. Some public gallery spaces are also available for hire. What separates these spaces from “everything else” is that they have been typically designed for showing art, have decent lighting, a proper hanging system etc, as well as allowing you to use the gallery name when marketing your show. Perception can very important in the art world.
When choosing your gallery space you need to consider some important questions…
1. Is the gallery space on ground level with a window which will get some passers-by (good) or in a basement or upstairs (not so good)?
2. Is the cost of hiring the space within your realistic expectations of sales from the show? Costs can range from €500 to €2000 a week.
3. What level of marketing, advertising can you expect from the venue, if any?
4. Do the gallery have a mailing list? Will they let you use it?
5. Will the gallery provide sales support – e.g. sales staff on opening nights, use of their credit card machine etc
6. Will the gallery provide help hanging the show?
7. What time of year are you booking? ~Is there anything happening in the local area that will take away form your show? Or are you taking a space at a time that you will be able to benefit from something else (e.g. a local arts festival) ?
Step 3: What are the costs involved?
The costs of putting on an exhibition will vary depending on the type of work you make, the type of gallery you hire etc, but here are some costs that you will probably have to consider….
Gallery Hire – Anything from €300 to €2000 for a week. Always ask if VAT is included in the quoted price or if it is added on top of it.
Insurance – Is insurance covered in the Gallery Hire agreement or do you need to have your own Public Liability Insurance
Framing – Assuming an average of €100 per frame then 25 frames will cost you €2500
Transport – Will you need to hire a van to transport your work to and from the gallery?
Advertising – Are you planning any advertising for the exhibition? Maybe a small ad in the arts section of a local newspaper?
Printing (Invitations, flyers, Posters) - Printing costs will vary but you will probably be looking at around €200 to €300 for invitations and flyers. If you are planning a catalogue then your printing costs will be even higher.
Photography – Are you planning to photograph your own work or get a professional to do it?
Postage – One of the forgotten costs. Sending 100 invitations by post will cost you around €50
Wine and Drinks – If you are planning on having wine at the opening night don’t go overboard on fancy wines, but don’t try and do it on the cheap. It’s pretty easy to find good, drinkable wines for around €8 - €10 these days. For 100 people you will probably need 9 red and 9 white. And don’t forget the water!
Flowers (for opening night) – Who is opening the show for you?
Sales assistant for opening night – Having an experienced gallery sales person on the opening night is an investment well worth making. It’s only for 2 or 3 hours so should not cost a huge amount.
Step 4: Plan the Show – Create the Work
Putting together a body of work for a solo show should take into account some commercial realities. To some people that might seem like a “sell out” (whatever that’s supposed to mean)? But usually the main objective of an exhibition is to sell some of the work, so I think it just shows a bit of common sense.
I always aim to paint between 25 to 30 thirty pieces for a solo show. Within that I want to ensure I have pieces available at different sizes (and price levels) so that I am targeting different “market segments” (I promise I’ll keep away from the marketing jargon from now on) – e.g. from people who can afford say €500 to people that can afford €5000.
So when I am planning my shows I always think in terms of making paintings in sizes ranging from Small, Medium, Large and Extra Large (obviously a throwback to my days working in my father’s clothing shop), with roughly 25% of each size.
The extra large pieces are my leading pieces, which are more about generating a “wow” factor and drawing people in rather than making a sale. However, if you do manage to create work with a “wow” factor that draws people in then the chances are these are the very paintings that will sell. These are the pieces I tend to use in my press pack and that I hope to get printed in some newspapers or magazines.
Step 5: Marketing your Exhibition:
This deserves a comprehensive post on it’s own, so next month’s post will focus on marketing your exhibition in much more detail. In the meantime, my marketing strategy for any exhibition can be summed up very simply:
1. Create a comprehensive website for the exhibition
2. Prepare a marketing pack (press release, invites, flyers etc)
3. Identify who you hope to attract to the show – and categorise them into those you can contact/reach directly and those you hope to reach through general marketing. Press & media are separate again.
4. Identify the best ways to reach each category – e.g. by invite, press, online, social media etc - and let them know about the exhibition.
5. Try to entice everyone to visit your website. Your aim is always to get people to visit your website – that’s where you can get them to connect with you, and your work.
The goal of your marketing strategy is to get people to come to the exhibition. Once you do then the next challenge is to maximise your chances of making it a success.
Step 6: Running your own Exhibition
After all the hard work – making the work for the show, organising the invitations, marketing the exhibition, etc – it’s now time to get the most out of it. Here are some things to consider…
Hanging the exhibition:
Give yourself 24 hours before opening night.
Use printed cards for display titles and details of each piece – as opposed to hand written notes.
Try to ensure that the only thing your focus is on is your guests – and not whether you have enough wine glasses to go around! So it’s worth rounding up some volunteers for the night.
Have someone dedicated to looking after the wine and making sure guests are looked after
Make sure you have someone dedicated to looking after sales. Either sitting at a sales desk where everyone can see or walking the floor. It is well worth paying for a professional gallery sales person to do this.
Enjoy yourself. This is your moment so take some time out to soak it up.
Selling your Work:
Don’t even try. Your work should sell itself, you are only there to talk to potential collectors and fans, to allow your passion and enthusiasm for your new work to come across and possibly to offer to discuss prices if they suggest interest in buying a piece. A gallery salesperson might get away with trying a hard sell on a potential collector, but not you. You are the artist.
And that's about it. If you have any tips or advice on setting up your own exhibition please add a comment to the blog, I'd love to read it.
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